Michigan-bred bluegrass hero Billy Strings and his band play a huge homecoming show at Van Andel Arena Oct. 31. Throughout the month, Local Spins will profile this superstar’s career.
QUESTION OF THE MONTH: What’s your favorite Billy Strings song and why does he deserve such attention and adoration as a bluegrass artist? Email your response to firstname.lastname@example.org with BILLY STRINGS in the message field and your name will be placed in a drawing for a special Local Spins/Billy Strings gift pack that includes a Billy Strings T-shirt, vinyl LP and more — even a pair of Billy Strings socks. Oh, and Local Spins on WYCE will play that favorite song on the air. Scroll down for videos and a podcast interview with Billy Strings.
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It truly stands out as a success story unlike any other in the recent annals of Michigan music history.
It’s the implausible tale of a young guitarist from less-than-humble beginnings in a tiny Ionia County community who captivated Michigan music devotees one by one at open-mic nights and snug watering holes with unbridled adoration for bluegrass music and eye-popping flatpicking prowess.
The rabid crowds grew quickly, and after dazzling fans and fellow musicians in Nashville, this acoustic wunderkind who started life as William Lee Apostol took the bluegrass world by storm. He’s won awards by the armful – from his first Grammy Award for best bluegrass album in 2021 to last week’s honor as “Entertainer of the Year” from the International Bluegrass Music Association – and sold out venues across the world on his tours while rubbing elbows with music icons of every genre.
At only 30 years old (he turns 31 on Tuesday), Billy Strings is the face of modern bluegrass music, the indisputable, indefatigable king of the genre who inspires multitudes of fans sometimes lovingly referred to as Billy Goats – zealous disciples who follow his every move and make note of every song he plays on tour.
The market, of course, has followed: Fans can buy Billy Strings merch of every imaginable ilk, including Biily Strings T-shirts and hoodies, Billy Strings posters, Billy Strings caps and beanies, Billy Strings blankets, and even Billy Strings socks (which come in several different designs).
On Oct. 31, Halloween night, Billy Strings and his top-shelf band return to West Michigan for a jam-packed homecoming concert at the 12,000-capacity Van Andel Arena – an astonishing feat for any bluegrass artist, let alone a self-effacing musician who previously played such diminutive clubs as SpeakEZ Lounge, One Trick Pony and Rockford Brewing before moving up to Founders Brewing, The Intersection and Wings Event Center. (Some tickets for the Van Andel show remain online here.)
Local Spins has been there through it all, starting with the early, “who is this kid?” stages of his mind-boggling rise to fame as a bluegrass phenom with a psychedelic bent.
So, we’re dubbing this Billy Strings Month. Local Spins will look back at his early years (when he was part of a headbanging, stage-diving metal band), revisit some of those charming interviews as he honed his musicianship and songwriting, and zero in on various aspects of this virtuosic guitarist and singer’s superstar appeal.
Today, it’s a revealing 2017 interview conducted by Local Spins publisher John Sinkevics and Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Ralston Bowles as part of their RSVP Music Chat podcast that explored some of Billy’s early rock forays and dug into his bluegrass philosophy. Listen to the interview below and watch a video as well.
It’s all part of a bluegrass hero’s story that’s worth re-telling.
Billy Strings was reared in the world of bluegrass, but his first band as a teen was all about loud, heavy metal mania.
The guitarist dyed his hair black and played the role to the max.
“When we performed it was the furthest thing from a bluegrass traditional performance,” he recalled. “We were jumping around the stage, head-banging, sweating, ripping our shirts off, kicking people in the audience, spitting on each other, stage-diving, breaking instruments, just everything. Just crazy.”
While that’s no longer his M.O. as an attention-getting, bluegrass acoustic guitarist, Billy Strings — who grew up as William Apostol in Ionia and later spent years in Traverse City while touring with mandolinist Don Julin — still unleashes heavy metal-styled energy on stage and still listens to “crazy death metal bands” on occasion.
That was just a small part of a free-wheeling discussion Apostol had with singer-songwriter Ralston Bowles and Local Spins publisher John Sinkevics as part of the RSVP Music Chat in 2017. The conversation was staged while the now Nashville-based musician was touring Michigan with his band over the Thanksgiving holiday in support of his studio album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil.”
(Check out a review, photo gallery and videos from that Grand Rapids tour stop: ‘I’ll never stop’: Billy Strings brandishes ceaseless bluegrass passion in Grand Rapids.)
During the podcast — which followed the band’s performance on-air at WYCE-FM — Apostol credited his parents for influencing and supporting his music, shunned the convention of playing only traditional bluegrass and instead taking a “no-rules … Jerry Garcia approach” to music, urged small-town kids to “go explore” their potential, touted the value of jamming with and learning from other musicians, and admitted he had “no idea it would take off like this” when it comes to his burgeoning career.
Listen to the full podcast and watch video highlights below.
PODCAST: RSVP Music Chat Episode No. 8 with Billy Strings
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: RSVP Music Chat with Billy Strings
BILLY STRINGS: THE DOSSIER
Name: William Apostol
Age: 30 (DOB Oct. 3, 1992)
Hometown: Muir, Mich. (Ionia County)
Awards: New Artist of the Year, Guitar Player of the Year (International Bluegrass Music Association) 2019; Grammy Award (best bluegrass album) 2021; Artist of the Year (Americana Music Association) 2022 and 2023; Entertainer of the Year (International Bluegrass Music Association) 2023
Discography: With Don Julin, “Rock of Ages” (2013) and “Fiddle Tune X” (2014); “Turmoil and Tinfoil” (2017), “Home” (2019), “Renewal” (2021); with stepfather Terry Barber, “Me/and/Dad” (2022)
VIDEO: Billy Strings and Band Live in Alabama (August 2023)
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